By Golly, It’s the Deity Again

On Language: Spelling 'G-d,’

By Philologos

Published June 30, 2010, issue of July 09, 2010.
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Jonah G. Sinowitz writes:

“Since I was a young child, I’ve written the word G-d with a hyphen. I still think in terms of G-d, even though everyone around me uses the word Hashem. On the other hand, I have no problem writing ‘god’ with a small ‘g.’ Today, for example, in referring to what folks in the technology field might call a ‘guru,’ I spoke of someone as ‘a god in the field of computer science.’ I’m curious whether other languages have the same issue.”

I’ve written before in this column about the spelling “G-d,’ which is restricted to Orthodox Jews. It’s one that quite literally sets my teeth on edge, since the only sound I can imagine for it is the sound I might make if I suddenly were to swallow a goldfish — and what good is a word, even a written one, if it sounds like a goldfish in the gullet?

I understand, of course, the logic behind “G-d.” It goes back both to the biblical commandment against taking God’s name in vain and to the shem ha-meforash or Tetragrammaton (from Greek tetra, four, and gramma, a letter of the alphabet), the Hebrew letters yod-heh-vav-heh that compose this name in the Bible. By the end of the Second Temple period, they were considered so sacred that Jewish law permitted their utterance only once a year, by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and while they continued to be copied by scribes in Torah scrolls, they were now read as adonai, “Lord” or “Master.”

Subsequently, in early rabbinic times, adonai, too, began to be considered too holy for anything but liturgical use. In all ordinary situations, it was replaced by various euphemisms, the two most common being ha-kadosh barukh hu, “the Holy One Blessed Be He,” and ha-shem, “The Name” — which, as Mr. Sinowitz observes, is how many Orthodox Jews refer to God to this day. The same thing happened with the other main biblical word for God, elohim, while when the Bible or prayer book was read or quoted from in nonliturgical situations such as study, adonai and elohim were de-sacralized by being changed, respectively, to adoshem and elokim.

Writing “God” as “G-d,” a development that has taken place in the past half-century of American Jewish life, can thus, I suppose, be defended as a further extension of an old trend into English. Yet, English itself has traditionally resorted to dashes only to indicate unprintable vulgarisms like “f—k” or “sh—t,” so that, ironically, “G-d” looks more like an obscene word than a sacred one. (This is another reason I find it foolish.) The traditional method by which English has avoided profaning the name of God has been quite different and has involved — like adoshem for adonai, or elokim for elohim — mimetic euphemisms, like “Gosh” or “Golly.”

Indeed, English has a large number of such euphemisms, all originally used for oaths, such as “Gosh darn” for “God damn,” “By golly” and “By jingo” for “By God,” “For goodness’ sake” for “For God’s sake” and so on. Expressions of this sort go back to the Middle Ages. Probably the best known of the medieval ones, though rarely heard anymore, is “Zounds,” a contraction of “s’ wounds,” a substitute for “[by] God’s wounds!” — a way of swearing by the crucified Jesus. English also has many substitutes for the name of Jesus itself, such as “Gee whiz,” “Gee whillikers” and “Jeepers,” in addition to such combinations as “Jiminy Crickets” for “Jesus Christ,” and “For crying out loud” for “For Christ’s sake.”

Unlike Hebrew, however, English did not develop such words because “God” was considered too sacred to utter; it did so solely in deference to “Thy shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which was interpreted as referring to trivial or unnecessary oaths. Almost nowhere in the English language can one find a sentence like “I pray to Gosh when I’m worried” or “I’ve always had a strong belief in Golly,” situations in which Jewishly observant speakers of Hebrew and Yiddish (and increasingly, as Mr. Sinowitz points out, of English) will use “Hashem” or one of its equivalents. (The only exception to this rule that I can think of is a sentence like “Goodness knows that I meant well,” in which “Goodness” functions as a “God” substitute, too.) Other European languages have similar “minced oaths,” as they are called, although none, to the best of my knowledge, as extensively as English. Thus, for instance, we have the French sacre bleu (literally, “holy blue”), which is a circumlocution for sang de dieu (“God’s blood”), and the Italian porco zio, translatable as “goddamn it,”” in which zio, “uncle,” replaces dio.

The nice thing about such euphemisms is that, unlike “G-d,” you can pronounce them. Perhaps Jews made a mistake when, 50 or 60 years ago, they did not start writing “The Torah is Gosh’s revelation to man” or “We are Golly’s chosen people.” It’s too late for that now, but between “G-d” and Hashem, I definitely prefer the latter. At least it has some vowels.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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